Before I went on my extended hiatus for this blog (as I was writing Aftertaste through the six or so drafts that I’ve written of my first screenplay), one of the things that I was doing with this blog was taking fairly extensive notes on a tiny little notepad so that my reviews on here could be more detailed and specific. It was a trick I had learned as a music journalist because during Bonnaroo, I realized that after seeing twenty or so bands, I’d hardly be able to remember which songs the bands had played if I didn’t take notes about it let alone awesome specific moments from any given concert. And that translated well to movies. For whatever reason, I’ve stopped doing that after I decided to go back to this blog and start reviewing movies again (though I haven’t abandoned my screenwriting. I finished screenplay #2, Thursdays, about three weeks ago, and I started screenplay #3 last night). And after sitting through the good but mildly forgettable Donnie Brasco last night (as well as my recent string of finding myself getting hazy on the details of films I really enjoyed because I had to wait so long to review them), I know I need to get the notepad out again.
Perhaps my disappointment with Donnie Brasco lies with the simple fact that I can name two films that do the two main themes of the film so much better than this film does. The film is both a crime procedural as well as a study of how undercover cops often face the peril of “becoming the mask” they wear to stop crime. Of course, the modern film that has more or less set the non-The Wire standard for crime procedurals was Zodiac and there were simply times where Donnie Brasco felt like it was playing hard and loose with the actual facts of the case (and apparently, the ending definitely stretched the truth), and Leonardo Dicaprio set the gold standard for undercover cop performances in The Departed (which I’ll be watching in a week or so for my film studies class. and this week, I should be watching the film it’s based on, Infernal Affairs). Thank god that Lefty Ruggiero was such a compelling figure that could carry the film on his shoulders.
Donnie Brasco is a loose adaptation of the real life story of Joseph Pistone (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas‘s Johnny Depp), an undercover FBI Agent tasked with infiltrating the Bonanno crime family in the 1970s. Working under the alias of Donnie “the jeweler” Brasco, Joe befriends the low-level and all-around loser mafia hit man Benjamin “Lefty” Ruggiero (The Godfather: Part II‘s Al Pacino). Lefty wants to believe he’s a big shot, but he isn’t. He’s barely an earner, and it’s heavily implied that he might not even be a “made man.” But after Donnie earns Lefty’s trust by telling Lefty that a diamond Lefty scored is a fake, Lefty takes Donnie in as his mentor and quickly begins to personally “vouch” for him with the other mafiosi. And thus begins a years long deep cover operation that will ultimately lead to convictions against over 100 members of the Bonanno crime family.
However, Joe/Donnie’s life is more complicated than just trying to infiltrate the mob and to climb up the ranks in order take down as many mobsters as he can (though the film shows many moments where Donnie’s cover gets a hair-breadth away from being blown). Joe begins to lose himself in the identity of Donnie Brasco, and the constant demands of his job requires him to spend months at a time away from his wife (Cedar Rapids‘ Anne Heche) and kids. Donnie also knows that when he’s finally pulled out of the case and his identity as an FBI informant is revealed, it will surely mean the death of Lefty who Donnie has begun to legitimately care about almost as a father figure. Although Donnie loathes the violence and crime that these men live in, after spending so much time with them, he has begun to identify almost as much with his alter-ego and his “partners in crime” as he does anyone in the real, legal world.
This was one of Johnny Depp’s first real “grown-up” roles, and, you know what, it’s really nice to see Depp in a non-crazy person role every now and then. It reminds you what a hell of a talented actor he is even when he isn’t playing a Jack Sparrow type or any of his other famous crazy person roles. Although it’s not as great as Dicaprio in The Departed, Johnny Depp really loses himself as a man that’s being torn apart by the competing forces in his life. And he (and the writers) aren’t afraid to paint Joe/Donnie in an increasingly unsympathetic life as the violence and madness of the mafia world begins to seep in to his home life. Depp has to go to some really dark places in this role, and when the role calls for shocking moments of brutality or for Depp to snap out against his wife, he re-inforces just how how far gone Joe has gotten lost as Donnie.
However, Pacino makes this movie. It isn’t just the fact that Lefty is the most interesting part of the film (although more on that later); it’s how deflated and pathetic Pacino can make Lefty and then shift on a dime to show the false swagger Lefty wants to have. This particular 50 film block for my blog has been really Pacino heavy (to wit: Donnie Brasco, Scarface, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Godfather: Part 1 & 2 ) and when I give away my superlatives for this set, there’s a really good chance that Al Pacino is going to be making around three or so appearances. It’s kind of crazy. He wasn’t in a single movie that I reviewed for the 300 films before this set, and now he’s just dominating the field. And while Lefty isn’t as great as Ricky Roma or Michael Corleone, he is such a massive subversion of the glamorous mafioso type (and against the sort of cocky psychos Pacino began to play) that it proves yet again that Pacino is simply one of the greatest actors of all time.
There were other great supporting performances in the film. Anne Heche shined as Joe’s abandoned and long-suffering wife. Michael Madsen was sufficiently menacing as Sonny Black, one of Lefty’s capos whose whirlpool of violence continues to suck in Joe/Donnie. And Zeljko Ivanek brought his patented brand of slime and bureaucratic sleaziness as an FBI field manager who didn’t seem to care too much about Donnie’s safety. I’ve reached the 1000 word mark so I’ll draw this review to a close so maybe I can do a little screenwriting of my own this evening. If you like crime and ganster movies, Donnie Brasco is very good if not especially great. Other than the tragic and doomed Lefty, I never generated a real emotional connection to any of the action on screen. It just sort of washed over me. Maybe that’s just me though, and everybody should definitely give this movie a try.
Final Score: B+